Policy Study

Airport Security

Time for a New Model

Executive Summary

The legislation that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the current approach to aviation security, though well-intentioned, was poorly thought out and is fundamentally flawed. It mandated costly changes in some aspects of aviation security, without any analysis of relative risks, costs, or benefits. Consequently, it has wasted passengers’ time and absorbed large sums of money that could have done more to improve security if used in other ways. With new leadership at the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the time is ripe for rethinking how this country approaches airport security.

There are three basic flaws in the current model. First, the law presumes that all air travelers are equally likely to be a threat, and mandates equal attention (and spending) on each-which is very wasteful of scarce security resources. Second, the TSA operates in a highly centralized manner, which is poorly matched to the wide variation in sizes and types of passenger airports. And third, the law puts the TSA in the conflicting position of being both the airport security policymaker/regulator and the provider of some (but not all) airport security services.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and TSA Administrator Edmund “Kip” Hawley have called for re-orienting security policies along risk-based lines. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office has found that today’s very costly airport screening is little better than what existed prior to “federalization” of this function-and that the performance-contracting approach implemented on a pilot-program basis at five airports appears to have worked slightly better than the TSA-provided screening. Both factors set the stage for fundamental reform.

This report calls for three such reforms, to address the three fundamental flaws in the current approach. First, to remove the inherent conflict of interest, the TSA should be phased out of performing airport screening services. Instead, its role should become purely policymaking and regulatory (and better balanced among all transportation modes). Second, the screening functions should be devolved to each individual airport, under TSA oversight. And third, screening and other airport security functions should be redesigned along risk-based lines, to better target resources on dangerous people rather than dangerous objects.

Devolving screening responsibilities to airports would mean that each airport could decide to meet the requirements either with its own workforce or by hiring a TSA-approved screening contractor. This model has been used successfully in Europe and Israel since the 1980s and has worked very well. Funding would be re-allocated to airports on a monthly (or at least quarterly) basis, rather than annually as at present. This would permit a much better match of screener numbers to actual passenger throughput, in the rapidly changing airline environment.

And with the funding managed at the airport level, airport managers would have strong incentives to finance the upgrading of baggage-screening systems to make them less labor-intensive. At most larger airports, this would mean replacing lobby-based EDS machines with automated, in-line EDS systems. At smaller airports, it would replace labor-intensive ETD installations with EDS machines transferred from larger airports. These changes alone would save over $700 million per year in screener staffing costs nationwide.

A risk-based model would separate passengers into three groups: low-risk, high-risk, and ordinary. Low-risk travelers would be those who qualify for Registered Traveler status. They would get expedited checkpoint processing and their bags could usually bypass EDS screening. This change would cut future EDS acquisition costs by $1 to $2 billion, and would yield another $200 million annual savings in baggage screener costs. High-risk travelers would receive mandatory body scans and explosive-detection inspection of both checked and carry-on baggage.

These changes would free up resources to use for increased security in lobby areas and on the tarmac, as well as improved control of access by non-passengers to secure areas. Overall, this set of risk-based changes would put much greater emphasis on guarding against the threat of explosives (as opposed to just weapons) getting onto planes, as well as the threat of suicide bombers in terminals and on planes.

In addition, by putting all airport security functions under the control of the airport (instead of dividing them between airport and the TSA, as today), and putting all these functions under armslength TSA regulation, overall airport security would be more integrated and more effective, and the whole program would be more accountable. And freeing up nearly $1 billion a year from screening would provide the resources for reconfiguring passenger checkpoints and beefing up the other aspects of airport security.


Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.